Saturday, September 05, 2009

Active Learning is Passive, Too

(((The latest and greatest in ed theory; did anyone ever learn anything before there were education departments? I should note that when I say "our students" and "my students," below, I am speaking in very broad strokes, about students in general, not about any student or students in particular. The question here is pedagogy and how we ought to approach teaching our students. I was working on this before the semester started, so: emphatically not a response to any particular classroom experience.)))

I'm getting really sick and tired of the discourse and attitude around so-called "active learning." This latest shibboleth (although it is not terribly new, by the way) says "passive learning" is bad, and what we're doing if we lecture (which I actually almost never do, anyway, but I'm pretty good at it when I do) -- or, worse, if we don't do the spiffy in-class projects classified as "active" -- is relegate students to passivity, and, so, to not actually learning.

Maybe our students could learn to take in lectures and discussions ACTIVELY, so that, you know, they could ask questions. Why is a conversation or lecture passive? Because students let it be. I don't remember ever in my life listening to a lecture and not thinking about it, even if I thought it was crap. If I wasn't thinking about it, I wasn't listening to it. At all. I read the same way. Unless thinking is passive, there is an issue when "active learning" doesn't include "active listening."

Ah, but here is the problem. Our students approach listening exactly the same way they approach reading: passively. Reading is not supposed to be any work. Textbooks, alas, encourage this, and that is why I don't use them. I make my students buy and read real books. And as far as I can tell, they skim lectures, trying to figure out what the word or fact is that they're supposed to write down -- so they don't know at all how to parse discussion, for example, and in the case of lectures, they don't pay attention until they've heard a word or phrase that sounds like it ought to be written down . . . by which time, they will have missed everything or almost everything that makes said word or phrase meaningful. There are certainly poor lecturers in the world, but this does not make lectures as such the cause of passive listening. Passive listeners are the cause of passive listening; or my other (not mutually exclusive) pet theory is that this what they've been taught to do in middle school and high school. It's the same reason they always ask for "study guides," by which they mean lists of things they're supposed to memorize. They've been trained that they're going to be told what they have to "know" (="memorize"), and then they just have to jump through the hoops they've been told will be there (that's called "taking a test").

On the other side, I'm trying to figure out exactly what is "active" about "active learning" when students are running mazes we've designed for them. Sure they have to do stuff. I get that. They are supposed to "use" the stuff they "know" (although where content comes in is frankly not always clear), and of course the activities aren't supposed to be rat mazes. But what about students coming up with their own problems based on reading I give them? When and how do they learn to do that except by doing it? And why isn't that considered an "activity"?

Am I just being reactionary?

I want my students to learn lots of things, but the single most important thing I've seen is that students don't know how to read actively. That is the main thing I try to teach, I guess. And a lot of them hate it. But when they learn how to do it, they're then ready to actually start thinking and talking creatively about what they've read, past the first layer of understanding what they've read. They're ready to stop thinking that everything they read should be transparent and not cause confusion. They're past the point where they think that being confused is a bad thing, rather than a place you spend some time as part of the process of learning things. Indeed, if you keep learning, you spend a lot of time in confusion. If you're not confused at points, you're not being challenged by anything.

Or maybe I am just making that up. I certainly don't think it's the only thing they need to learn, or that everyone needs to teach this, or teach it the way I do. On the contrary. But I think I am pretty good at this stuff, and it gets under my skin that so many people think I am just that lazy about my teaching, or so disconnected from "the learning side" of teaching, that I need charts fit for sixth-graders and exercises designed to reveal to me my misconceptions that work as if they were designed for high-schoolers.

I can't help thinking that Socrates had no whiteboards and no PowerPoint (maybe that was his secret!). Siddhartha Gautama didn't distribute rubrics. Thomas Aquinas never passed out study guides before the disputatio.

Maybe here's the other thing, and maybe this for me has always been the hardest part of teaching, the tough nut to crack, the main thing I still think I work on: how do you teach students that sometimes there is no right answer, or no one right answer? How do you put them in a position to understand this? And then to start figuring what to do with it?

I teach a lot of religion, where you can imagine this kind of approach leads to a lot of anxiety and misunderstanding, and so I am very attuned to the finer points of managing it. But maybe that is something to pick up in a second post, where maybe I should also address the difficulty of making this point (about no right answer and what to do with it) in classrooms filled overwhelmingly with students convinced that "everyone has a right to their own opinion," by which they inevitably mean, "stop trying to persuade me of something other than what I already believe to be the case."

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